For as long as I can remember there has been a part of me that tenses up when I hear someone bear testimony that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the only true church.
Even as a youth who never doubted the validity of the statement, hearing those words made me uncomfortable. What had I done in my life to merit membership in this one true Church? Why was I so special?
As I became older and was exposed to both secular and religious experience outside my own tradition I found myself becoming increasingly wary of this statement. Observing Catholic Mass, reading Surahs of the Quran, and participating in Samatha meditation has sometimes left me with a sense of holy envy.
I have experienced truth outside of my own tradition. My experience does not necessarily have to negate a belief that the LDS Church is the only true Church. Concepts such as the light of Christ enable a belief that other religious institutions and individuals have been touched by the divine and have a part of the truth. This is a common belief among Latter-Day Saints but is always followed with the injunction that the LDS Church has the fullness of the truth.
However, historic events and changing policy indicate that the Church does not contain a fullness of the truth. Further, statements from leaders have indicated that the Church does not have a monopoly on truth and that the Church is still learning and doctrine still unfolding. For example, Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s famous comment that followed the policy change for Priesthood ordination was to, “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world. We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more.” (McConkie, Bruce R. “All Are Alike Unto God“) This quote explains that there was a lack of truth in the Church before the revelation.
A more recent sermon from President Uchtdorf stated “Sometimes we think of the Restoration of the gospel as something that is complete, already behind us—Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, he received priesthood keys, the Church was organized. In reality, the Restoration is an ongoing process; we are living in it right now” (Uchtdorf, Dieter. “Are You Sleeping Through the Restoration?”). There are still truths and practices to be restored. Policies and teachings to be processed.
This should not be surprising. The idea that the Church can still learn new revealed truths was recognized almost since the beginning of the Church in one of our Articles of Faith:
“We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” (9)
So if other religions have truth and if our religion does not have all truth then how can our Church be the only true Church?
Perhaps the answer lies in either the organization or the ordinances present in the Church. The Church claims prophets and apostles and proper authority. Also, the Sacraments of the Church are distinct and viewed as ancient ritualistic covenants that are necessary for salvation. An argument could be made that these provide ample reason to claim the Church is the only true and living religious organization upon the face of the earth.
But this again is complicated. To demonstrate this I should go back to where the only true Church statement originates*. In the Doctrine and Covenants Section 1, the preface of the book, it reads:
“And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually.” (v. 30)
The chapter heading provides us with the date for this revelation–November 1, 1831. Those who have done an in-depth study of Church History realize that this revelation was given while the structure of the Church was in its infancy. Many of the callings and leadership roles we find present today were missing at that time. Teachings such as the pre-existence and the three degrees of glory were either unknown or fuzzy. Temple ordinances were yet to be revealed and the idea of proxy work was unknown.
I believe there is an easy resolution to these dilemmas that is scripturally and doctrinally sound. I would like to provide another interpretation of Doctrine and Covenants 1:30. First, it is important to note who the section is addressed to–“Ye people of my church” (v.1). Remember this is talking about the Lord’s Church. This is significant and important context is added by another scripture. Christ’s Church is given a detailed description in the Book of Mormon:
“Behold there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil; wherefore, whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to that great church, which is the mother of abominations; and she is the whore of all the earth.” (1 Nephi 14:10)
Contrary to Bruce R. McConkie’s claims this verse is not talking about an institution. Someone who studies this textually will see that the Church of the Lamb is similar to Lehi’s people who go to the good fruit while the other is the Church of Mammon which concerns with appearance and fleeting material (this explanation of the Church of the Lamb is given immediately following Nephi’s vision of the tree).
As BH Roberts pointed out “‘The church of the devil’ here alluded to, I understand to mean not any particular church among men, or any one sect of religion, but something larger than that — something that includes within its boundaries all evil wherever it may be found; as well in schools of philosophy as Christian sects; as well in systems of ethics as in systems of religion.” (Roberts, Brigham H. Defense of the Faith and The Saints. Pg 30)
The boundaries of the church of the devil are not limited to an institution. In fact, even people who have a membership in the LDS Church are not immune from being a part of it. Another Book of Mormon verse reads:
“Wherefore, he that fighteth against Zion, both Jew and Gentile, both bond and free, both male and female, shall perish; for they are they who are the whore of all the earth; for they who are not for me are against me, saith our God.” (2 Nephi 10:16)
In BYU’s Roundtable Discussion on this verse Religion Professor Stan Johnson eloquently said, “In our modern terminology we might say those who fight against Zion both member and non-member. And to me membership isn’t going to save us, folks. I think that’s a pretty profound statement there. We’d better watch ourselves and I want to say this too…President Benson once said many outside the covenant are withheld temporarily from the fulness of the truth for a purpose. For a wise purpose**. To me, those who fight against Zion, both those in and out, are in trouble. And also I would say the reverse is true. I believe, and I think we all believe this, there are many outside of the covenant who are for the Lord. Who are doing the best they can. And I believe they also are not the whore of all the earth.” (Book of Mormon Discussion)
BH Roberts clarification of the church of the devil may give us clarification of the only true and living church of the Lamb. Roberts statement could be revised to say, “The church of the
devil’ Lamb here alluded to, I understand to mean not any particular church among men, or any one sect of religion, but something larger than that — something that includes within its boundaries all evil good wherever it may be found; as well in schools of philosophy as Christian sects; as well in systems of ethics as in systems of religion.”
As we read these scriptures these two questions are answered:
- Can there be people who are not part of the LDS Church who are part of the Church of the Lamb of God? Absolutely.
- Can there be Mormons who are not a part of the Church of the Lamb of God? Certainly.
In these verses it is clear to the reader that there are only two Churches. A small path and rod on one side of the river and a great and spacious building on the other side. One clings to Christian and Zionistic principle (love and charity) while the other clings to the carnal and survival of the fittest (lust and selfishness).
I want to conclude by explaining that this reading of Doctrine and Covenants 1:30 still allows for an exceptional place for the LDS Church. The LDS Church belongs inside the Church of the Lamb. The Sacraments and proxy work can still be claimed as necessary. The work and theology of the LDS Church can be true and vital and necessary for the work of salvation. While limiting the membership of the Church of the Lamb to just the membership of the LDS Church is not scriptural, the restoration can still be described as a historical and ongoing event that provides us with eternal truths, blessings, and saving ordinance.
* There is one other scripture that gives precedent to the only true Church mantra. When Joseph Smith asks the Lord which sect to join he is told none of them, “for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.’” First, I believe some of this language is specific to the small area Joseph lived (ie “those professors). But as noted above, none of these religions qualified as the Church of the Lamb. When Joseph says, “I have learned for myself that Presbytarianism is not true,” this is scripturally correct since Presbytarianism is not the Church of the Lamb. I do not think this detracts from the direct language and the above analysis of the Book of Mormon quotations.
** The Ezra Taft Benson quotation can be found here and is worth the read.